November 2, 1933
|Died||August 10, 1988 (aged 54)|
|Education||Art Students League of New York, Pratt Institute, Cooper Union School of the Arts|
|Known for||Painting, Sculpture, Installation art|
Paul Thek (November 2, 1933 – August 10, 1988) was an American painter and, later, sculptor and installation artist. Thek was active in both the United States and Europe during his life, staging a number of ambitious installations and sculptural works throughout his lifetime. Posthumously, he has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, and his work is held in numerous collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne.
Life and career
Thek (born George Thek) was the second of four children born to parents of German and Irish ancestry in Brooklyn, New York. In 1950, Thek studied at the Art Students League of New York as well as Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, before entering Cooper Union School of the Arts in New York in 1951. Upon graduating in 1954, he moved to Miami, where he met and became involved with set designer Peter Harvey, who introduced Thek to a number of artists and writers such as Tennessee Williams. During this time, Thek created some of his first known drawings, including studies in charcoal and graphite (now held in Kolumba's collections), later followed by abstract watercolors and oil paintings. Thek first referred to himself as Paul Thek starting in 1955; in a letter to Harvey, he writes: "Let me tell you who I am George Joseph Thek but Paul to you and Paul to me you would have to be me to know why I am Paul after all this erroneous George business." In 1957, he exhibited his works for the first time at Mirrell Gallery in Miami. It was in Florida that Thek first met photographer Peter Hujar, who photographed Thek in Coral Gables.
By the end of 1959, Thek and Hujar, now a couple, were living in New York. Thek traveled to Italy in 1962, and with Hujar visited the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, an experience which had a strong influence on his work.
During the 1960s, Thek and Hujar associated with a number of artists and writers including Joseph Raffaele, Eva Hesse, Gene Swenson, and Susan Sontag. Thek was particularly close to Sontag, who dedicated her 1966 collection of essays, Against Interpretation, to him. In 1964, he participated in Andy Warhol's Screen Tests. It was during this time that he began to work in installation and sculpture, most notably creating wax sculptures made in the likeness of meat. Between 1964–67, Thek had three solo exhibitions of his famed Technological Reliquaries at Stable Gallery and Pace Gallery in New York.
Thek was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in 1967 to Italy, leaving New York shortly after his exhibition for The Tomb opened. The figure in Thek's Tomb was popularly associated with the American hippie movement and has often been mistitled as Death of a Hippie. He traveled and lived throughout Europe during the late 1960s and early 1970s and worked on large scale installations.
After a peripatetic lifestyle, Thek took up permanent residence in New York in 1976 and began teaching at Cooper Union. Amid increasing emotional stress, he struggled to make and sell work, but began to show nationally and internationally again during the 1980s. He died on August 10, 1988 after learning he had AIDS the year prior. After his death, Sontag dedicated AIDS and Its Metaphors to his memory.
In 2010, the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited the first American retrospective of Thek's work with Diver, a Retrospective. Works of Paul Thek are on permanent display at The Watermill Center on Long Island, New York.
Technological Reliquaries, or Meat Pieces (1964–67) is among Thek’s most notable body of works, wax sculptures made in the likeness of raw meat and human limbs encased in Plexiglas vitrines. In a 1966 interview, he speaks of the work: “I hope the work has the innocence of those Baroque Crypts in Sicily; their initial effect is so stunning you fall back for a moment and then it’s exhilarating…It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers. We accept our thing-ness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”
The Tomb (1967), perhaps his most famous work, was a pink ziggurat which encased an effigy of Thek made from a mannequin with face, hands, and feet cast from his own body. Painted in a light pink, the effigy featured a protruding tongue and a hand bloodied from amputation, and was surrounded by other casts of Thek’s body in cases roped off with red cords in reference to archeological digs.
The Procession/The Artist’s Co-op (1969, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), Pyramid/A Work in Progress (1971–72, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), Ark, Pyramid (1972, documenta 5, Kassel), and Ark, Pyramid, Easter (1973, Kunstmuseum Luzern) were a series of conceptually-related installations created with a number of collaborators during Thek’s time in Europe. Each contained common elements which served to create an immersive environment, including: the “Hippie” (a cast of Thek’s body), the Dwarf Parade Table (a table supported by a latex statue of a dwarf and chairs), and a chicken coop. With each installation came an increasing number of items compromising the pieces, to the point at which much of Ark, Pyramid, Easter had to be destroyed as Kunstmuseum Luzern could no longer store the components.
Selected solo exhibitions
- 2015: Ponza and Roma, Alexander and Bonin, New York; Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich
- 2015: Please Write! Paul Thek and Franz Deckwitz: An Artists’ Friendship, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
- 2013: Nothing But Time: Paul Thek Revisited 1964–1987, Pace Gallery, London
- 2012–13: Paul Thek, in Process, Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg; Kunstmuseum Luzern
- 2012–13: Art is Liturgy – Paul Thek and the Others, Kolumba, Art Museum of The Archdiocese of Cologne
- 2010–11: Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
- 2009: Paul Thek: Artist's Artist, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
- 2005: Paul Thek Luzern 1973/2005, Kunstmuseum Luzern
- 1995: Paul Thek: The wonderful world that almost was, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Fundacio Antoni Tapies, Barcelona; Kunsthalle Zürich/Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich; MAC, galeries contemporaines des musées de Marseille, Marseille
- 1977: Paul Thek/Processions, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia
- 1976: The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, Galerie Alexandre Iolas
- 1973: Ark, Pyramid-Easter, Kunstmuseum Luzern
- 1972: A Station of the Cross, Galerie M.E. Thelen, Essen
- 1971: Pyramid/A Work in Progress, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
- 1969: The Procession/The Artist's Co-op, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
- 1968: A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects Theoretically to Wear, Carry, Pull or Wave, Galerie M.E. Thelen, Essen
- 1967: The Tomb, Stable Gallery, New York
- 1966: Paul Thek: Recent Work, Pace Gallery, New York
Selected group exhibitions
- 2018: Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body, Met Breuer, New York
- 2013: Paul Thek and his Circle in the 1950s', Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York
- 2007–08: Paul Thek. Works in the Context of Contemporary Art, ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe; Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg
- 2003: Global Village: The 1960s, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
- 2001: Painting at the Edge of the World, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
- 1999: Circa 1968, Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto
- 1984: Content: A Contemporary Focus 1974–1984, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
- 1981: Drawing Distinctions, American Drawings of the Seventies, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark; Kunsthalle Basel; Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus; Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen
- 1976: La Biennale di Venezia
- 1973: documenta 5, Kassel
- 1971: Depth and Presence, The Cocoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
- 1969: Human Concern/Personal Torment-The Grotesque in American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
- 1968: documenta 4, Kassel
- Kunstmuseum, Bern
- Erzbischoefliches Diözesanmuseum, Cologne
- Ludwig Museum, Cologne
- Des Moines Art Center, IA
- Johnssen Collection, Essen
- Museum Folkwang, Essen
- Weatherspoon Art Gallery, Greensboro, NC
- Greenville County Museum of Art, SC
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art
- Kunstmuseum, Luzern
- Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
- Newark Museum, NJ
- Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
- Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
- Centre George Pompidou, Paris
- Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
- Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
- Federation of Migros, Zürich
- Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto
- Paul Thek. From Cross to Crib. Cologne: Walther Koenig, 2014 ISBN 978-3-86335-335-3
- Neubauer, Susanne. Paul Thek in Process. Commentaries on/of an exhibition. Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2014 ISBN 9783957630988
- Schachter, Kenny. Nothing But Time: Paul Thek Revisited 1964 – 1987. ex cat. London: Pace, 2013. ISBN 978-1909406063
- Sussman, Elisabeth and Lynn Zelevansky. Paul Thek: Diver. ex cat, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art; Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011 ISBN 978-0300165951
- Falckenberg, Harald and Peter Weibel, eds. Paul Thek: Artist’s Artist. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; Karlsruhe: ZKM | Center for Art and Media Technology, 2008 ISBN 978-0262012546
- Brehm, Margrit, and Axel Heil, Roberto Ohrt, eds. Tales the Tortoise Taught Us.. König, Cologne 2008, ISBN 978-3-8656-0389-0
- Wittmann, Philipp. Paul Thek – Vom Frühwerk zu den "Technologischen Reliquiaren". Friedland: Klaus Bielefeld Verlag, 2004 ISBN 978-3-8983-3061-9
- Cotter, Holland, Marietta Franke, Richard Flood, Herald Szeemann, and Ann Wilson. Paul Thek: The wonderful world that almost was. ex. cat. Rotterdam: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 1995 ISBN 978-9073362321
- Paul Thek/Proccessions. Text by Suzanne Delehanty. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1977
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- Gefter, Philip; Scott Burton, Martha; Smith, Joel; Turtell, Steve (2017). Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. New York: Copublished by Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE. p. 70. ISBN 978-1-59711-414-1.
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